[January 6, 2013] Today is known as Epiphany, the Greek word meaning manifestation or appearing, coming into clear view, showing itself or becoming known (of stars, see Acts 27:20; of God’s favor, see Titus 2:11; of the Day of the Lord, see Acts 2:20); metaphorically it means to shine (see Luke 1:79). 2 Timothy 1:10 speaks of the “appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” at His first coming, and 1 Timothy 6:14 speaks of “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” when He comes in glory.
What we celebrate on Epiphany is Jesus being manifested during the days of His first coming. The story of the magi coming from Parthia to honor the “King of the Jews” in the beginning of Matthew chapter 2 is traditionally celebrated on January 6 to mark the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles. The events described in Luke chapter 2 have already shown His appearing to Israel.
Epiphany has also long been associated with the baptism of Jesus, when Jesus was recognized by the Baptist and began His public ministry. When He returned from the desert, He emerged into the public light of Israel and began to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the Gospel” (that is, the good news of its coming, of His coming; Mark 1:15). At the Lord’s baptism the heavens opened and a voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I have found My delight” (Matthew 3:17). The season of Epiphany likewise ends with the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain when the same voice was heard again (Matthew 17:5), coming out of a bright cloud, saying, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I have found My delight. Hear Him!” The Transfiguration event marks the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry as His Baptism marks its beginning. He has appeared in Galilee. Hear Him!
This last word echoes the Shema (“Hear, O Israel”) repeated daily by Jews throughout the world and perhaps points us to the real meaning of Epiphany. It is not enough that He has appeared to the world, we must also hear Him, or rather, heed Him. Nor does this refer only to His ethical teaching; rather it points to from whence—or from Whom—that ethical teaching comes: “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I have found My delight.” What we are asked to pay attention to is Who He is, that is, the divine revelation of His Person. He is the Son of God, the Beloved of God, the One in Whom God has found His delight. Then whatever He does or says becomes important, and not only important but empowering, for “flesh and blood cannot reveal this to you, but [only] My Father Who is in the heavens” (Matthew 16:17; or the Son, Matthew 11:27; or the Spirit, 1 Corinthians 2:10—the Three are One).
The Arrival of the Magi
The argument of Matthew’s gospel is that the Messiah has come not only as a blessing for the Jews but also for the gentiles. Jesus is the Son of David (Matthew 1:1), adopted into the line of David by Joseph at the command of the angel when He was named at His circumcision. He will sit on the vacant throne of His father David and “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33). But He is also the Son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1), that is, the Seed promised to Abraham through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). “Your Seed shall possess the gate of His enemies, and in your Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (22:17-18; singular in the Hebrew). The desire of some Pharisees and the “zealous” to isolate Israel, and their abhorrence of the idea that the Messiah should be a blessing to the Gentiles was strongly rejected by Jesus, by Matthew and by the entire apostolate of the early church (as it was by the prophets of Israel). “Is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of gentiles also? Yes, of gentiles also.” By saying this, do we nullify the Torah? “On the contrary, we establish the Torah” (Romans 3:29-31).
After Matthew establishes Jesus as the Son of David by His adoption into the house of Joseph in chapter 1, gentile magi arrive in Jerusalem seeking the “King of the Jews.” The Jews always speak of the “King of Israel,” but outsiders use the expression, the “King of the Jews,” and we will see that this is the title placed above Jesus on the cross by the Roman governor as the “crime” for which Jesus was guilty. Jesus is named the King of the Jews by gentiles at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and again at the end, both times those in power perceiving it as a claim to their own throne. Yet in spite of their concern, the magi of the East recognize Jesus’ supremacy and fall prostrate at His feet in homage and worship, offering Him gifts in acknowledgement, and while the Roman governor thought he had disposed of Jesus, He rises from the grave and receives “all authority in heaven and on earth” so that “at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Matthew 28:18; Philippians 2:10).
Were these rulers wrong to perceive Jesus’ kingship as a claim to their own? Perhaps, but it was not because His kingdom was “spiritual” and theirs “political.” His spiritual kingdom is very much earthly too, and is certainly a threat to every political kingdom, including the petty jurisdictions of governors and senators and representatives. It is not an innocuous “private opinion.” Surely, even though Rome had executed Him, in the days to come the Man Jesus was to become the most decisive political challenge Rome would ever face.
But the danger Jesus poses is not that He wanted (or wants) to reform the world along His own lines: along the lines of freedom, equality, justice and respect for the dignity of each person, say. Rather, Jesus intends to replace the world with an alternative world in which “Jesus is Himself the established kingdom of God” (Barth), the kingdom in Person (autobasileia; Origen). He intends to end the kingdoms of the world as surely as the stone cut without hands struck the statue of the prophet Daniel’s vision and “the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:31-35). Jesus was not going to do this by violence nor by the coercion of weapons but by the Spirit’s manifestation of the revelation of God. His people would have no claim to capital or possessions or weapons and they will refuse to believe that truth can be served by the competition of violence or money. The warfare for them has already been won, by Jesus. Their “spoils of war” will be by their own divinization through the Spirit of God in the power of Jesus’ own transformation. The end of the world and the transformation of the creation itself in this same power is the prize of victory that is only waiting to be seen.
Magi from the East arrive in Jerusalem, over which Herod imagines himself to be the “king of the Jews.” They come looking for “He who has been born King of the Jews,” that they may “worship Him.” Herod does not attempt to address their confusion by referring them to his own heir but deals with them stealthily, so he can dispose of this threat.
Herod ruled in fear, the more so since his power was only maintained by Rome and could easily be given to another. Like all such rulers he maintained his power by keeping his subjects in fear of him. The last thing Herod wanted was a surprise like the one that the magi brought to his doorstep.
Herod intended to use violence against the little Child. His actions are reminiscent of Pharaoh’s opposition to Moses, when he feared that the Israelites would “multiply … and fight against us and depart from the land” and so ordered that “every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile” (Exodus 1).
Herod’s actions are also reminiscent of Saul’s opposition to David. He feared that David was more popular than he was and intended to take his throne. He became paranoid and hunted him down to kill him.
Herod’s actions foreshadow, of course, Jesus’ crucifixion by a Roman governor as the “king of the Jews.”
This was Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was to be the vassal when Jesus was “manifested” on the stage of Israel, and it was he who arrested and beheaded John the Baptist. Later, in the days of Acts 12, Herod Agrippa I was to have messianic fantasies of his own and would attempt to cultivate favor with the Pharisees and the zealous who opposed the church on the grounds of its outreach to gentiles. This too must have been in the background of the minds of the first readers of Matthew’s gospel. The persecution that Herod initiated was probably the reason Matthew himself fled from Jerusalem and migrated north into Syria (Antioch). When Herod the Great persecuted Jesus Joseph took the family to Egypt (Alexandria).
The magi (plural) also remind us of the magus (singular) in Numbers 22—24, Balaam the son of Beor. Philo calls him a magus, a practitioner of secret and occult arts (see 23:23). In the Greek translation of Numbers 23:7 he is said to come “from the East.” When the king of Moab, Balak the son of Zippor, attempts to hire Balaam to curse Israel, he can only bless Israel by delivering oracles that foretell of Israel’s future greatness and of “a star [that] shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter [that] shall rise from Israel” (24:17). Herod sends the magi to Bethlehem that they might report back to him, but they foil his plans by returning to their own country by another way. Instead of assisting him in destroying his enemy, the magi actually honor the Baby, indeed, “they fell to the ground and worshiped Him,” offering Him gifts worthy of His kingship. (They fell prostrate on the ground the way Muslims still do today when they worship. They received this practice from our Eastern Christian siblings.)
The star in Balaam’s prophecy was the King Himself. In Matthew the star was only a portent. The magi who came to Jerusalem did so because of a star that told of the King’s birth. The star was no longer in the sky (for it appeared again in verse 9), so they did not follow it to Jerusalem; the star foretold the birth of the King of Israel. They went to Jerusalem at the dictate of their own common sense.
However, this move endangered the Child, for it alerted the tyrant to His existence and with the help of the Temple scribes he was able to figure out the Child’s whereabouts. The scribes cited the prophecy of Micah 5:2, which spoke of a “ruler,” with 2 Samuel 5:2, where “all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said … “YHWH said to you, ‘You will shepherd My people Israel, and you will be a ruler over Israel,’” when they wanted David to extend his sovereignty over them as well as Judah. The Ruler who shall be born in Bethlehem will not be a tyrant like Herod but will shepherd Israel. Furthermore, contained in their citation is the anticipation that this One will not only rule over Judah (the Jews) but will also unite the tribes of Israel, something that could still have been imagined in the time of Jesus.
In any case, it was the magi’s obedient response to the prophetic writings that prompted the reappearance of the star, which then guided them to the house where the Child was. They came to the Child by a combination of applying science (their pagan craft) to nature and then heeding the guidance of the prophetic Scriptures in combination with the guidance of the star. The prophetic Scriptures worked together with the light of the star, indicating that it is not enough to follow the Scriptures outwardly—for it has no power, as we see with the scribes—but we must follow its interior light—represented by the star—which as we apply ourselves takes us directly to the Child. The house is a dream archetype of the interior self. The image of the Child in the house beside His mother depicts Christ within us. The Scriptures act as a mirror to show Him to us (James 1:23).
Traditionally the gifts are offered in recognition and acknowledgement of His royalty (gold) and divinity (frankincense), and in anticipation of His death (myrrh). More Biblically, gold signifies the glory of the divinity, frankincense the “fragrance” of life out of death, and myrrh the “fragrance” of death. When the magi offered their gifts, they offered things of value to them, elements of their craft. While in worship we recognize Christ for who He is, we also offer to Him what He is. We take Him into our hands and reflect Him as we offer this, our gift, to Him. Worship is the offering of Christ to Christ—as we offer Him to the Father through the Holy Spirit.
The magi are told to return home, not to stay in Israel. They returned to their gentile lands as witnesses to the Christ who has come not for Israel only but for the gentiles too.